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The Possibility of Theomusicology: William Bradbury’s Esther, the Beautiful Queen

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Abstract African-American scholar, theologian, and musician Jon Michael Spencer issued his initial publications on his theory of theomusicology in 1986. As an alternative to more traditional musicologies, Spencer specifies theomusicology as a theoretical model of theologically, biblically, and spiritually-informed historical and analytical studies in music, of particular appropriateness to African-American music making. Theomusicology redirects the analytical and critical objectivity of musicologies to facilitate concentration on iterations of ethical, religious, and mythological beliefs, regardless of their medium, location, and cultural function. It seeks ways to describe the synthesis of the sacred and profane—the meshing of seeming opposites. This article explores the application of theomusicology to African-American performances of a popular large-scale vocal work entitled, Esther, the Beautiful Queen, written in 1856 by U.S. composer William Bradbury.

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93. FN11) See Spencer is now known as Yahya Jongintaba. I refer to him by the name he used when he initially promoted theomusicology.
94. FN22) For more on how theomusicology draws attention to the empowering and spiritual functions of music, especially among oppressed peoples, see Spencer, Theological Music xi, 3–17, 61; Spencer, “Musicology” 49–51; Spencer, Re-Searching 6, 58–59.
95. FN33) I employ the term “cultivated tradition” in reference to music as codified by H. Wiley Hitchcock 53–55.
96. FN44) I do not claim this list of recent forays into theomusicological approaches to be exhaustive, merely referential. Admittedly Heidi Epstein takes Spencer to task for what she views as his masculinist tendencies, yet her study relies on Spencer’s theory more than she appears willing to admit.
97. FN55) Trotter 4. Whites expected black musicians to confine themselves to racially-identified genres and styles such as minstrelsy, planatation songs, and spirituals. For more on white denial of African-American access to Euro-American music, and the arts in general, see Du Bois 8, 44–45, 61, 128–30; Small, Music of the Common Tongue 249.
98. FN66) For more on the struggles experienced by black musicians as they attempted to perform music of the cultivated tradition, see Graziano; Hildebrand; Southern 244–53, 261; Trotter 66–87, 241–52.
99. FN77) Hymns written by Bradbury still current in hymnals include: “He Leadeth Me,” “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know,” “Just As I Am Without One Plea,” “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Me,” and “Sweet Hour of Prayer.”
100. FN88) Highlights of Bradbury’s biography were culled from these sources: Wingard; Karpf, “Wild and Soul-stirring”; Karpf, “Would that it were so in America”; Karpf, ed., William B. Bradbury, ix–xiii.
101. FN99) Karpf, “Improvised Accompaniment Practices”; Karpf, “In an Easy and Familiar Style”; Karpf, ed. William B. Bradbury, 119.
102. FN1010) See Karpf, “If It’s in the Bible, It Can’t Be Opera”; Karpf, ed., ix–xviii.
103. FN1111) Some of the earliest African-American performances of Esther took place in New York city in the 1860s; see Lawrence 536–37. For information about performances of Esther during the 1870s–90s, see Karpf, “An Opportunity to Rise”; Perrin; Seroff and Abbott, “100 Years from Today” 80–81, 112.
104. FN1212) On the black presence in biblical narratives, see, for example, Bailey, Copher, McCray, and Ridgeway.
105. FN1313) The quotations Cady selected from the Book of Esther that Bradbury did not set to music are: 2:16–18, 3:1–2, 3:12–15, 3:13, 5:1–3, 6:1–2, 6:14, and 7:1.
106. FN1414) For more on the use and function of talk-singing in black sermon, see Levine 134; Raboteau 141–51; Salaam 352–53; Smitherman 134–41; Spencer, Sacred Symphony 12–16; Stuckey 76.
107. FN1515) Spencer, Theological Music 120–23. See also, Gates 5–6, 20–22; Levine 102–33; Roberts 44–45.
108. FN1616) Also, by referring to Bradbury’s work as the “cantata of Esther,” critics avoided confusion with Handel’s first oratorio, Esther (1732). Karpf, “Populism with Religious Restraint” 6, 20; Karpf, “If It’s in the Bible, It Can’t Be Opera” 6–7.
109. FN1717) Crouch 164. See also Radano 121–22.
110. FN1818) For more on voice merging as a discursive strategy and analytical tool, see Miller, “Martin Luther King, Jr.,”; Miller, “Voice Merging and Self-Making”; Karpf, “As with Words of Fire”; Vail, “The ‘Integrative’ Rhetoric of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Speech, ‘I Have a Dream’ ” 53, 64–66; Howard 120–26.
111. FN1919) Craig 28–29. For additional discussion of black women’s activist appropriations of the Book of Esther, see Karpf, “As with Words of Fire”; Karpf, “An Opportunity to Rise.”
112. FN2020) See Haynes 26, 94–104; Levine 298–366.
113. FN2121) For more on the supposedly sexual connotations associated with dance, see Aldrich 18–20; Knowles 26–58; Lamb.
114. FN2222) Small, Music of the Common Tongue 102. Small writes of “musicking” as “descriptive, not prescriptive. It covers all participation in a musical performance, whether it takes place actively or passively. . . . [M]usicking is an activity in which all those present are involved” [emphasis original] (Musicking, 8–10).
115. FN2323) Spencer reiterates his belief in the transformational and spiritual essences inherent in all musics in Spencer, “Musicology” 56–57; Spencer, Re-Searching 117.

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